Public Image Ltd.
First Issue
Virgin

The 1980s in suburbia was the equivalent of a long ago and faraway galaxy.  The stifling culture of conformity, the sanitized versions of reality, the shiny news cars and big plastic homes.  My friends liked sports and heavy metal, they dreamed of the muscle cars they would own.  They thought Gino Vanelli’s ‘Black Cars’ was a boss track.  They had mullets and feathered hair.  They wore tank tops in the summer and knock off Vuarnet sunglasses, with the neon arms.  Their fathers went to work, their mothers stayed home.  There was no culture of dissent, because dissent wasn’t cool, man.  Conformity was.  But I didn’t really fit in, my home life was a mess, and our house wasn’t big and plastic, my mom worked as well as the Old Man.  I did not have a mullet, though I did have feathered hair for a nano-second.  I didn’t like muscle cars.  I also didn’t love metal, though I could dig it.  Hell, my first concert was Twisted Sister opening for Iron Maiden at the old Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver.  I didn’t really like Gino Vanelli.  And I didn’t like conformity.

So I searched far and wide for the alternative.  Some of this was easier to find, when bands like U2 and INXS were on the radio, they were this massive break from the steady diet of Bruce Springsteen and cock rock bands like Zeppelin.  I didn’t have older siblings to hand me down music, and all my cousins lived in Montréal.  And in the mid-80s we didn’t have cable TV, so I couldn’t watch MuchMusic.

When I was younger, like 11 or 12, my friend Grant and I would occasionally explore the lower registers of music.  He did have cable and Much, so this was possible.  And this is how we discovered punk beyond the Clash and the Sex Pistols.  As I got older, my buddy Aaron, with whom I played football, also got into some of the nastier stuff, like Suicidal Tendencies and DRI, and Dayglo Abortions.  And somehow, when I was 10 or 11, I got turned onto hip hop before all the jocks in my school became obsessed with Run DMC and Aerosmith doing ‘Walk This Way’ or the Beastie Boys’ early meathead phase.

Eventually we got cable when I was 13 or 14, and all of the sudden, I had access to Much, at least when the Old Man wasn’t home or awake, as he spent nearly all his time staring at the Idiot Box.  And suddenly a new world opened.  Late one night in 1987, Much played this video from something called Public Image Ltd., and I recognized the singer, he was the guy from the Sex Pistols, but this was a brand new bag.  There was this liquidified, rolling bassline, and then this high, shimmery, slashing guitar, and then John Lydon’s voice.  The lyrics were brilliant, and spoke of alienation.  Alienation and I were old friends by now. I was a kid from Montréal marooned in the Vancouver suburbs, I was suspicious for any possible French Canadianness, made worse by the fact I cheered for the Montréal Canadiens and Montréal Expos, not the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Blue Jays or the Seattle Mariners.  I did not see eye-to-eye with the Old Man, and I wanted nothing more than to get the fuck outta there.

By the time I was 15, I was riding the 160 bus from Port Moody into Vancouver, and I discovered the row of record shops on Seymour St.  There were the big stores, Sam the Record Man and A&B Sound, there was even the generally useless A&A Records and Tapes.  But there was also Track Records and a few more.  In the fall of 1988, I was in Track, flipping through the vinyl, and I found PiL’s First Issue, the album with ‘Public Image’ on it.  I shelled out my $6.98 and took it home.  It did not disappoint.

First Issue is not accessible music, it is not warm and fuzzy.  It is angry, vitriolic, it is a fuck you to punk, to the Pistols, to Lydon’s public image, essentially.  It is not easy listening.

The first track is ‘Theme,’ and it was something very different than what I expected.  MuchMusic, in its ignorance, had labelled the video I saw as ‘Theme.’  This was not that song.  Starting off with scream, and then Wobble’s loping bass, Levene’s strangulated guitars and my fellow Canadian Jim Walker’s drums, this goes into territory I had never even considered possible.  The bassline was so heavy in my headphones the first time I heard this song, I thought my brain would explode.  Heavy on the flanger, Levene’s guitar is all over the place and Walker is murdering his drum kit.  And then Lydon, his entire approach here, his vocals, his delivery, was an announcement this was something new.  His lyrics with the Pistols had been vitriolic and a fuck you to society, here he was introspective, screaming over the track, growling, howling, and chanting ‘I wish I could die’ over and over again.  What the actual fuck, I thought?  I was hooked.

It got better.  The second track was spoken word, Lydon reciting a poem about, well, religion:

Stained glass windows keep the cold outside
While the hypocrites hide inside
With the lies of statues in their minds
Where the Christian religion made them blind
Where they hide
And prey to the God of a bitch spelled backwards is dog
Not for one race, one creed, one world
But for money
Effective
Absurd.
Do you pray to the Holy Ghost when you suck your host
Do you read who’s dead in the Irish Post
Do you give away the cash you can’t afford
On bended knees and pray to lord.
Fat pig priest
Sanctimonious smiles
He takes the money
You take the lies
This is religion and Jesus Christ
This is religion cheaply priced
This is bibles full of libel
This is sin in eternal hymn
This is what they’ve done
This is your religion
The apostles were eleven
Now there’s a sod in Heaven
This is religion
There’s a liar on the altar
The sermon never falter
This is religion
Your religion.

By the time I heard this, it had only been a few years since my mom broke with the Catholic Church, and the guilt was firmly entrenched within me.  I couldn’t believe this, I couldn’t believe someone could be so sacrilegious. Even today, a lifetime and galaxies away from that day in October 1988, I am still uncomfortable with blatant sacrilegion.  But then we go directly from the spoken word ‘Religion I’ to the hardcore post-punk ‘Religion II.’  Wobble’s bass in the right channel, the guitar as well in the intro.  And then Lydon is in the left channel, chanting the poem this time.  It is only after the first verse that the whole song, music and vocals, explodes into both channels briefly before we’re back to music on the right, vocals on the left.

Lydon wasn’t the only one running from his past in PiL.  So, too, was Keith Levene.  Somewhat of a chameleon, he came of age in the prog rock scene, even serving as a roadie for Yes on their 1977 tour when he was 15.  By then, he had already formed The Clash with Mick Jones, convincing, first, Paul Simonon to play the bass.  It was Levene who recruited John ‘Woody’ Mellor from the pub rock band, The 101ers, to front the band, taking the name Joe Strummer.  The Clash played their first gig in 1976 opening for the Pistols, of course.  But by then, Levene was becoming disillusioned with the band, and that night he approached Johnny Rotten, suggesting their form a band if the Pistols broke up.  By September, he’d been kicked out of the band, being largely superfluous as the third guitarist, and not one of the songwriters or singers.

In Pil, Levene developed a new way of playing the guitar.  His guitars were jagged and ragged, played on metallic guitars.  In essence, he invented the post-punk style of guitar, and his disciples could be heard across the gamut of the genre from Sisters of Mercy to U2.  I once read an interview with Peter Hook of New Order, who himself initiated a style of bass playing that became the norm of the post-punk scene, jokingly suggest he should sue all the bassists who copied him and got rich.  Levene could do the same.

Wobble was friends with Lydon, and had been for years by the time PiL formed.  In fact, he and Lydon, along with Sid Vicious and John Grey were known as the ‘Four Johns.’  Wobble’s birth name is John Wardle and Vicious’ was John Ritchie.  He came to play the bass because he felt his hands were too big for the guitar, and he dug the ‘full body experience’ of the instrument.  He was heavily influenced by Wailers’ bassist Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett.  He and Lydon messed around some, experimenting with music and after the Pistols split, Lydon asked Wobble to join him and Levene in PiL.
Walker, meanwhile, had been a member of the first punk band in Vancouver (which developed into a major punk and hardcore city by the end of the 1970s and early 80s with DOA, Young Canadians, DeeDee & the Dishrags, the Subhumans, NoMeansNo, SNFU, etc.), the Furies.  Trained as a drummer at the Berklee School of Music, he resurfaced in London, answered an ad for a drummer in The Melody Maker (RIP) and became a founding member of PiL.  He was also the first to leave, in 1979.

‘Annalisa,’ the next track was arresting. It was about a young German girl, said to be possessed, left to starve to death by her parents.  This is perhaps the heaviest song on the album, centred around Wobble’s bass and Walker’s pounding drums.  Levene’s guitar work here is particularly clear, less reliant on the flanger.  And the lyrics.  Jesus.

Think I’m proud to be your enemy
Take your hands off of me
You’re worse than the thing that possessed me
They way they were
The way they should have been
Annalisa
Annalisa was 15 years
Stole her soul
But I hear no tears
Ever been alone
And heard the voice
Not your own
I’ve seen those fears
Annalisa
Somehow you used ignorance for sense
Melodrama in your eyes
All concern rests with the dead
Annalisa
Annalisa had no escape
Starved to death in a waiting room
Cheap concern and rosary beads
Did not solve screaming needs
Annalisa
And there was the way Lydon delivered the girl’s name, sounding like he was strangling himself, and, oddly for him, full of tenderness and concern for the girl.

Finally, at the start of Side 2, after I flipped the vinyl over the song that had caught my attention on Much: ‘Public Image.’  Even now, 32 years after I first heard it, 42 years since it was recorded, this song is still arresting for me, it remains, as far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest songs ever written.  It is also a massive middle finger to the image of Johnny Rotten and the construction of Lydon’s alter ego in the media:

Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello.
Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha.
You never listen to word that I said
You only seen me
For the clothes that I wear
Or did the interest go so much deeper
It must have been
The colour of my hair.
Public image.
What you wanted was never made clear
Behind the image was ignorance and fear
You hide behind his public machine
Still follow the same old scheme.
Public image.
Two sides to every story
Somebody had to stop me
I’m not the same as when I began
I will not be treated as property.
Public image.
Two sides to every story
Somebody had to stop me
I’m not the same as when I began
It’s not a game of Monopoly.
Public image.
Public image you got what you wanted
The Public Image belongs to me
It’s my entrance
My own creation
My grand finale
My goodbye
Public image.
Public image.
Goodbye.

The track rides Wobble’s bass, which begins the song, before Walker’s drums come in, and Lydon is looking around to see if anyone is listening, ‘Hello, hello…’  And then Levene’s guitars just shred.  This is the only radio friendly track on the album, and the first song recorded, in the summer of 1978 at Advision Studious, London, with John Leckie engineering, though overdubs were added at Wessex Studios.  Lydon’s vocals are notable here, slightly alienated from the music and delivered through a dub-style Space Echo.  This track was also notable because it was Wobble’s show musically.

Then again, according to Martin Atkins, who ended up playing drums in PiL in the early 80s, Wobble did run the show musically.  PiL didn’t really have set lists and they were somewhat of a jam band live in this iteration with Wobble on bass, and so he tended to be the one who dictated which song would be played when and how the song would progress.  There are many legends of the young Wobble being a bit of a nutter, which is kind of bizarre as today, he seems a very pleasant and friendly bloke, and interactive with his fans on Twitter.
This feeds into ‘Lowlife’ which begins with Walker counting in the beat, his drums kicking in and then Wobble’s bass before Levene wanders in.  And Lydon attacks some ‘ego maniac traitor’, whomever that could be?   ‘Attack’ is the only song I don’t like as much as the others on this album, it crashes and bangs more and Lydon’s vocals come through the Space Echo again.
The first side of the album was recorded with Virgin’s money at Townhouse and Manor Studios in London, but by the time they got to the second side, they’d run out of money and ‘Low Life,’ ‘Attack,’ and album closer, ‘Fodderstompf’ were recorded on the cheap at Gooseberry Sound Studious, which was usually a reggae studio.  The Pistols had recorded a demo there early on in 1977, so Lydon was familiar with it, and it seems the ideal place for Wobble to be recording in 1978.
At any rate, ‘Attack’ is the one track that seemed to suffer from the lower quality recording.
‘Fodderstompf.’  Well.  This was something.  Over top of a discofied Wobble bassline, and automatic, motorized drums from Walker, Levene spends more time messing with a synthesizer as the four members talk about being blah and wanting to be boring, but, really, they ‘only wanted to be loved.’  This goes on for 7 minutes and 48 seconds, and you’d think it’d get old quick.  But it doesn’t, as, musically, it is here that one really sees all the confluences of influences on Public Image Ltd.  Aside from the dub and reggae, there is that disco sheen, and even the krautrock drumming.  The beat is relentless.  As goofy as this track is, it’s brilliant.  Fodderstompf is also the name of the mother of all PiL fansites.

I was hooked.  This was close to the greatest thing I had ever heard by the age of 15 in October 1988.  Whilst my friends were all over INXS and ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ (which is, to be fair, a great track) and Poison, I was getting into this.  PiL weren’t the only ones.  By 1988, Young Canadians frontman Art Bergmann had resurfaced, working with John Cale, who turned his gutter punk songs into radio friendly tracks.  MuchMusic played ‘Our Little Secret’ to death, but underneath Cale’s shiny production, one could hear the grit of this song.  And eventually, that led me back to the Young Canadians and their song ‘Fuck Your Society.’ Meanwhile, as Aaron and I got deeper into Dayglo Abortions, we found other punk and hardcore bands.
And then sometime around the same time, I went to see David Lee Roth at the Pacific Coliseum.  I don’t care what you say, I still love Diamond Dave’s early solo material.  Anyway.  Poison were supposed to open, but the night before in Tacoma, bassist Bobby Dall pinched a nerve in his neck and so DOA were drafted in to open.  Holy fuck.  I was hooked, the rest of the crowed was less impressed and booed the hell outta them.  In response, they played a track called ‘Fuck You.’   Years later, I had a good laugh about this with Joe Shithead himself.
Anyway.  PiL.  This iteration did not last long.  As I said, Walker was gone by 1979, followed by a series of drummers before Atkins settled into the drum stool for 1979-80.  Wobble walked out in 1980, he wasn’t replaced until Pete Jones took over for a year in 1982-83.  Levene left in 1983, by which time Atkins had left and come back.  PiL remain a force today, though Lydon is the only original member left.
As for me, I was hooked on post-punk and I was hooked on both the guitars of Keith Levene, and especially Wobble’s bass.  He remains my favourite bassist to this day.  I eventually grew up to be a punk, a hardcore one even.  But punk, as much as I love it, was not my first love. That was hip hop.  And post-punk was my music, this was the kind of music I wanted to listen to.